A mishmash of too many ideas, inadequately executed
Creating an open world RPG is no easy feat. You have to worry about the large scope of the world, filling it with quests, interesting locations, and characters. There's also the need for engaging combat and loot mechanics, character customization, and stats. It's a complex and lengthy process, which is likely why few developers have a go at this genre, let alone as their debut project. The team at Experiment 101 was unafraid to face this challenge, and while it took them years longer than originally announced, the action RPG Biomutant will finally launch this week as their first game. Unfortunately, it was not worth the wait.
When firing up the game, you will first need to create a character. You play as a furry creature, a self-aware being that has evolved after the apocalypse to be able to talk, wear clothes, wield weapons and construct homes. You pick your breed, which defines your major physical features, as well as your initial stats. The stats include staples like vitality, strength, and luck (for loot and critical hit chance), as well as charisma. You then further mutate your character by manually choosing to focus more on certain stats while detracting from others, and lastly pick your genetic resistance – to survive in areas that have cold, heat, biohazard, and radiation effects. Lastly, you choose a class which again affects your stats and also gives you the main perk, such as increased damage or faster movement and better dodge. You can then also customize the creature's fur style, length, and coloring. The character creation system is fairly involved, though given the gameplay details we'll get into later, it's a bit needlessly overdesigned.
As players delve into the open world, they will learn about the history of this land and their own past, via flashbacks. The game takes place centuries after an apocalypse, caused by a greedy human corporation that was dumping nuclear waste all over the place. This eventually led to the collapse of civilization, and the rise of various mutated animals. In this new world, everything was centered around the Tree of Life, that apparently gave nature a chance to survive and thrive again. However, now it seems that there is some imminent threat looming that may cause the end of the world. The Tree of Life is also being eaten away at each of its five roots by strange large creatures. The local community of furry evolved creatures, such as yourself, has broken up into six tribes, each with their own take on the situation. Your goal is to unite the tribes, and try to stop the end of the world by defeating the creatures at each root of the Tree.
The setup seems fairly straightforward and there is certainly potential to tell interesting stories in an original world; however, the writing is consistently amateur. You go through overly dramatic flashback sequences that tell the tale of your youth and growing up, until your village is attacked and parents are killed by a random large monster. Alongside trying to save the world and unite the tribes, you're also looking for revenge against this beast. To defeat the large creatures at the roots of the tree, you visit the local whacky character, fetch him something to create a tool or machine that you'll need during the boss fight, and then repeat this process for each of the beasts. To unite the tribes, you have to visit each of their Forts and complete a linear mission which has you running through some rooms or caves with enemies. The game doesn't even commit to this equally repetitive objective, simply letting you skip re-uniting the rest of the tribes after you've got three done, which has to be the first time an RPG lets you forgo half of a main quest.
The narratives and themes of Biomutant are also all over the place. The fact that the world is supposedly ending feels extremely disconnected from what you see and experience – everyone tells you something is coming, and in the second half of the game you're even literally trying to put together a Noah's Ark type escape pod, but the world has absolutely no sense of impending doom. You don't see any changes through the course of the campaign that didn’t already exist from the initial post-apocalyptic setting. It's an entirely static world, and it makes little sense for it to be ending when you never encounter any threats – apart from the large beasties chomping on a root far from the main Tree, which you deal with, but it apparently doesn’t matter. The game also tries to inject random attempts at humor that fall entirely flat – from the off-beat comments from the narrator, to the names of the large beasts being "Fluff" and "Puff" and so on, to the randomized gear naming, old characters with names such as Out-of-Date, and the fact that you pee on fast travel markers to unlock them. The game also tries to evoke Kung Fu trappings, but beyond some combat moves and character outfits, the notion falls entirely flat. Overall, Biomutant has a confusing and nonsensical worldbuilding approach that's rarely enjoyable.
All of the main quests revolve around progressing the three narrative threads – revenge, tribes, and Tree of Life/beasts – but they follow predictable patterns. As mentioned, to defeat each beast you follow the same sequence of events, to overtake each Fort you have to complete a series of fights, and an occasional siege – where again, repetitive quest design has you go and fetch something before the battle. The game uses the same formulas over and over for each of the main quests. Similarly, you will sometimes come across puzzles where you must align an orange and white light in a certain direction on a series of rotating switches. While the setting and switches may look different, the same mechanic gets applied countless times. There are maybe 3 or 4 puzzles types, repeated ad nauseam. The boss fights are also fairly predictable, but at least they are more bombastic and entertaining.
When you're not following the main quests, you can talk to certain NPCs and pick up optional objectives. The game features a large amount of side quests, however almost half of them are just collectibles, while the rest again follow familiar tropes and have you fetching things or defeating certain monsters. The only meaningful conversations you can have are with story-related encounters, and here you can make some basic dialogue choices. The game has an Aura system which designates you and other tribes as either being Light or Dark (i.e. good or evil). The system is as shallow as it sounds – there is not a middle ground. You either choose to have the other tribes join you, or throw their leaders in jail after each takeover.
While the quests may be dull, Biomutant does at least successfully tap into the RPG desire to explore. The world is decently large, and features a few different environment types. Most of the land is overgrown by greenery, but you will often come across the remains of the old world – a few small human buildings still standing, or the emergency bunkers hidden in enclaves. Discovering these explorable areas, scouring the interiors for items to loot in drawers and on shelves, and even just finding a way to get in is engaging. It may remind players of the Fallout games, and there's certainly something addicting about finding all loot in a location – which the game helpfully identifies by a total count. The controls and movement during exploration is pretty basic, and you also get a mount to use which can look and feel quite erratic in handling. Discovered fast travel points help to speed up backtracking.
While you're adventuring, you'll be earning experience, and with each level you can assign additional points into the main stats of your creature. You also earn Upgrade Points, which can be distributed into general perks such as improved reload times and higher attack speed, or they can be spent to unlock extra combat moves with various weapon types. Players will also come across Bio points, which are collectibles used to either unlock new special abilities – such as a magic attack, creating an acid pool, or deploy a bouncing mushroom for a jump boost – or to upgrade your genetic resistance to hazards. Lastly, you will also come across Psi Points, used to unlock special powers such as levitation, a freeze shockwave, and so on. These powers are also locked behind your Aura rating, so half won't be accessible depending on what path you choose. While it may seem like the game has a lot of flexibility when it comes to your abilities, it seems needlessly overdesigned, and you have to navigate through a swath of menus to get to each different upgrade screen.
Your character stats and move set comes into the forefront when you're faced with many of the game's combat scenarios. As a third-person action game with both melee, ranged, and magic options, Biomutant feels rather unsatisfying in its controls and the weight of the action. Everything is fairly predictable and basic – your melee options include one and two handed blades/hammers, and your ranged weapons are pistols/rifles/auto rifles. You can go in swinging, kite everything and shoot from afar, or mix it up and do both on the fly. Melee weapons have a few different moves depending on their type and the enemies you face, like being able to slide under a large foe, or perform a combo on a group. When you're ranged, you can perform dodges or jumps which slow down time or increase your firing rate for bursts of damage. Using Psi powers or special attacks can also help in dispatching the foes quicker. No matter your approach though, the action feels very mechanical and lacks a sense of impact or excitement. Everything is animation-based, and since you can almost never stun foes, you'll often end up hitting each other at the same time and you're the one that gets knocked down.
You can mix and match your play style all you want, but the dull enemies you face will always fall into the same patterns. Most of your enemies will consist of enemy tribes, so furry creatures similar to yourself, who can also either be melee or gun wielding (even after uniting the tribes, you'll still come across these hostile groups with little explanation). You'll also face off against large mutated creatures, but they mostly look like bigger versions or mash-ups of animals, and their attacks are fairly limited. Other than the bosses, there is a lack of memorable enemies in the game, whether in their looks or in combat. The game is also quite easy on the Medium of three difficulties, and you can comfortably complete the entire game without ever using your Psi abilities or special moves.
You will want to make sure your gear is up to date, however. There are the expected equipment slots for your torso, pants, helm, and shoulders, where you can equip armor of varying stat levels. The armor can carry extra bonuses, such as increased resistance to specific hazards. Like the story, your armor will be a mix of functional and whacky, from big colorful pants to duck shaped helmets. You'll also find occasional weapons, and get a special one from the tribes you unite with, but for the most part you can create new weapons from crafting and upgrading. The weapon components can also be strange, such as bits and pieces of scrap metal, and toilet brushes.
The game's crafting system is easy to use, as you put new melee and ranged weapons together from a set of specific components – from handles to blades, from triggers to muzzles. You can stick whatever components you have together in hopes of creating a weapon that has better attributes than your current equipment, and the game lets you see this stat before you commit. Weapons have the same stat pool, so guns will have different reload speeds, ranges, and so on depending on type and components used. The components could also add special effects such as electric ammo or blade. Similarly, existing weapons as well as ammo can be upgraded with additional components to improve them or alter their function. To do any crafting, you'll have to have the components, as well as some of the five types of crafting materials.
While the crafting system is straightforward and seems well designed, there is little player incentive to use it. Even after completing the story and many side quests, most of the components were of rather basic grade, and so not really improvements over the one or two weapons you find prebuilt. Just like the special abilities, you could complete almost the whole game with the same weapons, and just replace your armor with a higher rated one, without ever bothering with crafting or upgrades. All of this also makes the game's vendors and the Greenleaf currency pointless – the entire game can be easily completed without a single transaction. You can craft anytime, anywhere from the menus, or visit an upgrade bench to improve stats of existing weapon.
After beating the game, which takes a rather brisk 15 hours and is definitely more on the "action" than "RPG" side of its action-RPG moniker, you can head into a New Game Plus, but you are unlikely to want to. Aside from the gameplay shortcomings, Biomutant is just not a game you want to keep looking at due to its very dated presentation. The art style offers a decent post-apocalyptic setting, but with the poor textures, basic effects, and rough animations in traversal and combat, this is a title that looks like it came out at the start of the previous console generation. The cutscenes and combat feature an ugly background blur, limited animation, and the game looks at times unfinished. There is a day and night cycle, and occasional rain, but it doesn't look great and there are frequent visual glitches when entering/exiting interior spaces.
The audio is equally disappointing. Whether it's the clanking of weapons against the enemy in combat, deploying your special powers, or just rummaging around an abandoned building, the soundscape is very limited and of low end quality. There is a lack of music throughout the experience. One very unique aspect of the audio is that the entire game is narrated by one older man, akin to the LittleBigPlanet series. He describes everything, from events in combat, to random quips about the story. He narrates all dialogues by describing what others are saying, in third person. It's a very risky approach, but for the most part it's sufficient, with decent delivery (though the writing itself can't be helped). You can turn down his random comments via options, as after a few hours it can get grating.
Despite the game looking so dated, it still has a big issue with performance. On a base model PS4, Biomutant is a very poorly performing title. Specifically, the game runs into serious framerate issues throughout, whether in midst of combat, cutscene, or just roaming around. The game is unable to keep a steady 30fps and constantly dips in and out of some very low numbers. It makes the already dull combat feel frustrating. The game also crashed a few times, though it thankfully autosaves with decent frequency. There are occasional physics and scripting glitches, and some conversations loop twice through the dialogue.
Biomutant is a debut effort from a Swedish studio Experiment 101, which was founded by ex-members of the Avalanche Studios group. Strangely enough, many of the game's problems are similar to another title – Generation Zero, also from a Swedish Studio, and a current subsidiary of Avalanche. Both games feature a strong open world that's interesting to explore, and decent foundations, but everything else – from gameplay, to presentation – is a letdown. The inconsistent story and setting, the shallow morality mechanic, the repetitive quest design, the crafting system that offers little incentive – Biomutant feels like a game that set out to include too many mechanics, and ended up polishing none of them. The technical and presentation issues certainly don't help its case, and neither does its nearly-AAA price.